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Their Country, Tis of Them


Wilcox Creek Campground, #7
Jasper National Park
Alberta, Canada

I've been thinking about Canada. It's a big place, and anything you can say about it will have more exceptions than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps it is too large a place for the jumped up conjectures of a foreign tourist to capture. But nonetheless each tourist will have his impressions. These are mine. Perhaps they may interest someone along this road, somewhere.

The thing about being a tourist abroad, is that it makes you a tourist at home. You start out thinking about foreigners, and end up thinking about your own country. Thinking about Canada helps us think about ourselves.

To this Texan, Canada seems just like Texas. Fifty years ago. Back then, it was not uncommon to walk around the Courthouse square in Georgetown and hear people casually speaking Swedish, or German. No more. You hear someone speaking German now in Georgetown, he learned it in college, and he's showing off. Probably talking to himself.

Spanish is another matter. Complete assimilation is a generational process. But in Canada it hardly occurs at all.

People in Canada tend to keep their foreignness, even after generations. Perhaps it offers a touchstone of identity that the Confederation does not. I am told that Canada did not even have a flag of its own until 1965 or so. "Radical idea, that. Could be trouble, ay? Maybe we should wait a bit more."

Occasionally, in backcountry BC, you will find a monument extolling the adventures and hardships of the "Pioneers".

In 1907.

Late, very late. To an American, Canada as a country seems sluggish. Tentative. Extremely nice, of course. But that's about the only thing extreme about them.

Even now, large parts of Canada are empty. They are much closer to the frontier than we are. It is not yet lost to them. It's right there, the place where the roads quit, 200 miles north of Montreal. Or Thunder Bay. On the map, that area has a tentative look, like the places where ancient mapmakers used to scrawl "Here be dragons."

In contrast, there's hardly a part of the American West that isn't being bid up and bought up by hordes of desperate Californians looking for a "quiet" retirement spot. They ought to come to Canada.

Wait. I didn't mean it. Stop. Oof.

Canada strikes this tourist as a profoundly conservative place. Conservative by nature, in a sense that the radical ideologues down south, who call themselves conservatives, can't begin to understand. Canada is careful. If they find something good up here, they are loath to let go of it, and certainly not just because it doesn't jibe with some Idea or Theory.

Perish the thought.

For good or bad, America has always been in a ferment of fashion and ideas, and devil take the hindmost. America is the natural home of the radical. We always want the latest thing, and are perfectly happy, most of the time, to throw the baby out with the bathwater just to make way for it. We will destroy happiness in order to pursue it. American conservatives and liberals are fundamentally more like each other than either is like the moderate they both despise. Out with the old, in with the new. Ain't it shiny, though? We live to shop.

Pity the poor reluctant American moderate. Wimp. He's way too Canadian.

It is tempting, though far too facile, to blame the character of both nations on the American Revolution. Politics as biology, how clever. The naturally conservative, the truly conservative people, mostly all fled north, leaving behind naught but radicals of various stripes, all bickering over who had the biggest idea, and who could legislate higher up a tree. We're still that way. It's in the blood.

Canadians are different. They are cautious. Their independence, their sense of freedom and consensus, their tolerance and good manners - all these seem sprung from a reservoir of caution imbibed with mother's milk.

Sometimes I get the impression, from their historical displays, that many would still rather be part of the British Empire. That was something grand, wasn't it? More than mere nationhood. Thus the inclination to an international spirit.

Which brings us to the national tic, the ubiquity of the national interjection. You know, "Eh", or "Ay?" What's up with that? You hear it everywhere.

The other night I heard Garrison Keillor say that "New Yorkers expect you to interrupt them. Otherwise they don't think you are paying attention."

In the same vein, Canadians interrupt themselves, constantly, ay? It is a way of testing whether the listener is paying attention. It is a way of asking, "Are you with me?", because something in the national character is never sure of that. Canadians are always checking.

Most Americans will assume you are with them, and move right along, talking mostly to themselves, until you decide to step in and pick a fight, just to improve their manners. Then they act surprised.

Canadians seem painfully polite. They want to go slow, build consensus in conversation, come back and reinforce the point if necessary, maybe even (the horror!) change their minds, if necessary, in order to get along better. Of course, much of this is genuflection to the national character. Beneath that, they fight as much as anyone.

I tried a few of these ideas out on a new-found Canadian friend. He looked at me, and laughed, and said, "You're a reacher, arentcha? That's very American."

Exactly. And that's a very Canadian reply.

So what is an American to make of a nation which looks like a rural version of us? Whose national highway, for much of it's length, is a two lane road? How 1950! Think about this: There's just not enough Canadians yet. Population pressure isn't what it was down South, half a century ago. Give them time. They are likely to screw, and screw, and screw things up just like us.

Meanwhile, if you want to find something like the robust, mostly empty, pluralistic, and somewhat less confident land you grew up in, try coming North and squint your eyes a little. The money's funny, and you have to buy your gas in liters, but you can almost taste home. It's like a time machine, or maybe a slightly tangential universe.

Canada is like the second verse of a old familiar tune, which we can't quite remember as we try to sing along.

We are all immigrants, you know. Tomorrow is a foreign country, and yesterday the distant land of our birth. But maybe you can go home again. Sort of. Head north.

On the downside, it gets rather cold up here. Nostalgia may be a fruit that ripens only in summer. But it travels well.

The scary thing for Canadians is that to visit the future they have only to turn south. Eeek.

I know, I know. "Keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."


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